We Are Our Own Trolls

I got an email from Tumblr at 5:18pm on Friday, March 23 titled “Update on Russian-linked activity on Tumblr.” Apparently, Tumblr discovered that 84 accounts on the site were associated with the Internet Research Agency (link), a para-governmental arm of the Russian government linked with the spread of “fake news” on social media platforms (link). “While investigating their activity on Tumblr,” the email I received from Tumblr stated, “we discovered that you either followed one of these accounts linked to the IRA, or liked or reblogged one of their posts.”

Let me try to put this into context.

Many of these troll accounts were employing African-American personas, often claiming through suggestion or association that they were young black men. They posted cute memes and reblogged each other, thus using Tumblr’s cultural trends and internal algorithms to achieve a sizeable following. These accounts also piggybacked off of the energy generated by the 2015 Black Lives Matter movement to circulate angry opinions about American politics. These opinions were expressed in various ways and with various tonal voices (including parodies of Black American English), but the gist of them was that white people are awful.

I am not here to discuss whether white people are, in fact, awful, but what’s pertinent to the conversation at hand is that these accounts were not expressing disgust and irritation with white male politicians and male white supremacists, but rather with white women. Especially young white women. Especially the sort of left-leaning young white women who use Tumblr. Especially the sort of young white women who could have used Tumblr as an effective platform to create grassroots support for the white female candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

This misogyny disguised as social justice was intended to split what could have become a cohesive voter base, and it did not occur solely along racial lines. Starting in around 2015, there was a sudden tsunami of vent posts about straight women, women who self-identify as feminists, women who self-identify as queer, neurotypical women, able-bodied women, women older than college age, women who are not financially precarious, and so on. Because most of us despise racism, homophobia, ableism, and neoliberal capitalism – and with good reason! – of course we liked and reblogged these posts when they first started circulating. Unfortunately, what this ended up creating was a pervasive atmosphere of furious political radicalism in which it was impossible for anyone to act as an ally to anyone else.

Speaking from personal experience, I had a number of mutuals in my tiny corner of fandom who not only reblogged posts that originated on these troll accounts but also bought into the idea that anyone who did not correctly signal and perform a minority identity was by default over-privileged and therefore deserved to be alienated and harassed. Cultural critique is a major component of social justice, but this constant stream of hateful invective was difficult to confront on a daily basis, and I ended up unfollowing a lot of people whom I formerly saw as friends. Meanwhile, a distressingly large percentage of young American women of all races felt so disenfranchised that they didn’t even register to vote in the 2016 election.

When compared to the crackdowns on Twitter and Facebook, there weren’t that many accounts that Tumblr was able to target as being associated with the Internet Research Agency, but there didn’t need to be. We did this to ourselves.